Public Health England has been accused of having “double standards” by the former head of the Royal College of Nursing who claimed the body has failed to offer a full explanation about why it referred ebola nurse Pauline Cafferkey to the regulator.
Last month Ms Cafferkey was cleared of all charges of misconduct at a Nursing and Midwifery Council fitness to practise hearing.
“Either PHE reject the criticism that things were shambolic and explain why, or they accept the criticism and apologise”
The nurse, who contracted ebola while working to fight the virus in Sierra Leone in 2014, was investigated over suggestions she concealed her illness from PHE officials during screening at London Heathrow airport when she returned to the UK.
During the NMC hearing, the airport screening area was said to be “busy, disorganised and even chaotic”, while media reports have also claimed it was described as “shambolic”.
Former RCN chief executive and general secretary Dr Peter Carter has called for a full explanation from PHE about whether it acknowledged that its system for screening health professionals at the airport was indeed “shambolic”.
He noted Ms Cafferkey could have lost her reputation and job if she had been found guilty of misconduct by the NMC as a result of the charges put forward by PHE.
Dr Carter questioned who regulated PHE and accused the body of issuing a “bland statement” following the case’s conclusion which did not address the concerns raised about its screening arrangements.
He also called for a full explanation from PHE about whether it had conducted any internal investigation into the allegations against Ms Cafferkey before referring the case to the NMC.
“If Pauline had been found guilty she may have not only lost her reputation, she could have lost her livelihood”
He said it was in the public interest for the body to provide these details because healthcare professionals who volunteer in the future would expect for there to be adequate screening systems in place.
“The fact that the arrangements at Heathrow had been described as shambolic warrants an explanation from PHE in the way that Pauline Cafferkey was asked to explain herself,” said Dr Carter during a debate on nursing regulation at London South Bank University last night.
“Either Public Health England reject the criticism that things were shambolic and explain why, or they accept the criticism, apologise to Pauline and apologise to the public because the implication is de facto the arrangements were shambolic for people returning from Sierra Leone, the public at large could be at risk,” he said.
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“If Pauline had been found guilty she may have not only lost her reputation, she could have lost her livelihood. It really does smack of double standards,” he added.
Referring to the criticism aimed at the NMC for its decision to investigate the case, Dr Carter added this was “unjustified”. “I do not for one moment criticise the NMC for investigating the matter brought to their attention,” he said.
A spokeswoman for PHE said it would be inappropriate for it to comment about the processes surrounding the screening due to ongoing hearings, but pointed to the NMC’s statement made following the conclusion of Ms Cafferkey’s hearing.
It stated that PHE’s referral “showed a highly unusual set of circumstances” that “clearly required a thorough and proper investigation” and noted it was “right for an independent panel to hear all the evidence to decide if any action is required”.